In French, the past tense is composed of the passé composé, l’imparfait, the passé simple (literature); as well as other compound tenses such as the pluperfect. French learners often have trouble distinguishing where to use the imparfait as opposed to the passé composé, which verbs in the passé composé take être/avoir, and remembering those pesky irregular verb conjugations. Hence, I created this article to cover the French Past tense.

Le Passé Composé (French Past Tense)

In French, the passé composé is the “barebones” to the past tense. This tense indicates a completed action in the past, which is the simplest way to describe it.  If a clear starting point/ending point is given then you may use the passé composé. It combines the verb être or avoir and a past participle, so remember to brush up on your verb conjugations!

J’ai vu les éléphants au zoo. (Je les ai vus)
I saw the elephants at the zoo. I saw them (the elephants).
[I saw them = action completed]

Pour le repas hier soir, elle a préparé la dinde.
For the meal last night, she prepared turkey. (simple present)
For the meal last night, she had prepared turkey. (past perfect)
[She prepared it = action completed]

**The example above shows that the French passé composé can be equivalent to both the simple present and present perfect tenses in English, just something to keep in mind when you’re translating things in your head.
Elles sont allées aux toilettes.
They went to the bathroom / They had gone to the bathroom.
[They went there = action completed]

**The example above is to remind you that French reflexive verbs and movement verbs (DR MRS VANDERTRAMP) require the auxiliary verb être and not avoir. The past participle also needs to agree with the subject.

L’Imparfait (French Imperfect)

In French, the imperfect tense can be seen as an action which continued in the past but is not necessarily finished. The imparfait is used mainly for descriptions (including time, weather, age) and feelings. Habitual actions are also use the imperfect.

J’étais fatigué(e).
I was tired.
[Description without a set start or end point, imparfait]

Depuis son enfance, il jouait du piano chaque matin.
Since his childhood, he played the piano every morning.
[Habitual action = imparfait]
Si j’avais dix dollars, j’achèterais une autre pizza. 
If I had ten dollars, I would buy another pizza.

Ma mère était toujours belle.
My mother has always been beautiful.

Il faisait beau hier.
The weather was beautiful yesterday.
[Weather without a definite starting or stopping point]

Plus que Parfait (French Pluperfect)

The pluperfect is used when talking about something in the past, however you bring up an event before that action in the past! Sounds complex enough? This tense uses the French imperfect auxiliary verb (avoir or être) with the passé composé past participle.

Nous sommes arrivées chez lui hier, mais il était déjà sorti
We went to his house yesterday, but he was already gone.

Si nous étions arrivés à l’heure, nous aurions pu voir l’émission.
If we had arrived on time, we could have seen the show.

La police estima que quelqu’un avait roulé à une vitesse trop importante et soudainement avait percuté un camion-citerne.
The police estimated that someone was driving too fast and suddenly had crashed into a oil-tanker.
[The police’s estimation which occurred in the past, was about events which happened BEFORE they estimated the events]

Marc cherchait à faire une bonne impression vis-à-vis ses collègues, donc il avait invité son chef et des autres condisciples à manger chez lui.
Mark was looking to make a good impression in the eyes of his colleagues, so he had invited his boss and some friends over to eat at his place.

Passé Simple (French Literary Past Tense)

The passé simple functions in the exact same manner as the passé composé, however it is used in literary works because of its stylistic appeal (you will definitely notice the passé simple in older literary works). The French passé simple removes the avoir or être auxiliary verb and conjugates the verb in a slightly different manner. Honestly, some French people prefer to write in the passé simple when writing in the past, while others prefer the passé composé.

Sandra commença à pleurer après avoir reconnu la voiture en flamme.
Sandra started to cry after having recognized the burning car.

Le médecin du SAMU assura au couple qu’il ferait toutes les choses nécessaires pour sauver sa vie.
The emergency doctor assured the couple that he would do anything necessary to save her life.

Il fut un temps ou il y avait une classe moyen.
There used to be a time when a middle class existed.

Well there you have it! If you need any help with verb conjugations, WordReference is always a great site to consult.

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